All photos: Paule Saviano
An elaborate circus set filled the stage at Madison Square Garden Theater for Panic! at the Disco's pair of concerts in mid-November, complete with a lion cage and a large painted backdrop of Victorian-era spectators. The band, fresh off the first dates of its Nothing Rhymes With Circus tour, blasted the crowd with its brand of dark, high-energy punk/pop.
With the meteoric pace of their success from their debut album, A Fever You Can't Sweat Out, Panic! has had to quickly acclimate to bigger venues, as has front-of-house engineer John Harris. Originally from Florida's local punk scene, Harris has worked on some larger tours, but this is his biggest yet. “There's more math involved, and there's a lot more to learn, which is so much fun,” he says.
To enhance the music's raw, live energy, Harris mixes on an analog Midas Heritage 3000 console. “A lot of people go for the digital compressed mix,” he says. “It sounds like the record. I don't want to pay $20 to go to a performance and feel like I'm hearing the band on a CD or my iTunes. I want the kick to punch me in the stomach.”
To create this in-your-face sound, Harris uses top-notch mics. “What you want — this is from working in a recording studio — is you want to keep everything as flat as possible as always. If there's a problem, you fix it at the mic [or] at the instrument.” The tour has an endorsement deal with Audio-Technica microphones, whose sound Harris loves. “It just sounds really true,” he says.
Harris has both guitars double-miked: lead guitarist Ryan Ross' with a Shure KSM32 and an Audio-Technica AT4050, and Urie's with an Audio-Technica dual-element AE2500. John Walker's bass gets an AE2500 and a Countryman DI. Drummer Spencer Smith's snare is miked top and bottom with ATM650s, while the ride gets a side-address ATM450. The floor and rack tom receive AE3000s; AE5100s are used underneath the crash cymbals. The kick is double-miked with a Shure Beta 91 and Beta 92.
Front-of-house engineer John Harris (front) and monitor engineer Larry Mignogna
A keyboardist and cellist augment Panic!'s sound on the tour. (Both are elevated above the band on the circus set.) The cello is electric and uses a DI. Harris takes two Dis out of a laptop running Reason for the keyboardist, using plenty of compression to squash the wilder frequencies of some of Reason's electronic sounds. Adding to the creepy carnival atmosphere, the keyboardist plays a Glockenspiel, which Harris mikes with a stereo pair of ATM450s.
There's also a DI'd electric banjo and a second keyboard that Urie uses while playing a Queen song. The band gutted an old piano, replacing its innards with a Yamaha P Series weighted keyboard. For a drum-cadence sequence, in which the band and some of the dancers line up and play marching basses, snare drums and trash cans, Harris had marching drums specially outfitted with Beta 98s on the snares and Beta 91s mounted inside the two bass drums.
For the vocals, an AE5400 serves as the stage-right microphone, and Urie sings into an AEW-5255 wireless. Harris uses an Avalon 737 compressor on the vocals — “the EQ on it is great,” he notes — and minimal effects: voice doubler on a Yamaha SPX990 and a TC Electronic 2290 digital delay. “I use effects just to warm things up and get [Urie] over everything else,” Harris explains. “I'm not trying to hide some screamer behind the guitar.” On the rest of the mix, he uses Drawmer gates, BSS DPP-102 compressors and a dbx 160XT comp.
For the first time, Harris is working with a Clair Bros. i4 line array system, which is maintained by system engineer/crew chief Andrew Berlin and sound techs Don Baker and Mike Gamble. The system uses QSC, Crown and Carver amplification, and Lake iO processing. The main hang speakers are 26 boxes per side, with 10 boxes of side hangs on each side for arenas, and six Prism sub-basses on the floor.
Presiding over the monitors is Larry “Filet” Mignogna, a veteran of Alicia Keys' and Paul Simon's tours, who is manning a DiGiCo D5, the model he used on Keys' 12-person band. “It does sound great; a lot more warmth to it,” he says of the board.
Mignogna has the band on Ultimate Ears UE7 IEMs with Sennheiser G2 beltpacks. He also uses 12 AM Clair wedges for Ross, and Clair R4s and ML18 subs as sidefills, “mostly for low end and for the dancers,” he adds.
From New York, the tour moves on to dates at pavilions and arenas on the West Coast and Mexico. For Harris, figuring out how to negotiate the tour's larger venues is exactly what he loves to do. “Whether being in small clubs or bigger theaters or arenas, I learn something new all the time,” he says. “I feel like if you stop learning, something's wrong.”
Gaby Alter is a New York City-based writer.